Divine intervention is something yours truly has never been a full-time subscriber to. I've always believed that in the end, it was the talent of one athlete or a team or a better strategy that proved why one side was better than the other.
Sometimes, though, you just have to believe.
On Friday night, February 15, 1985, that just might have been the case.
Toms River High School East's boys swimming team was the two-time defending Shore Conference Tournament champion, but was having to go in for the first time in this meet without its greatest swimmer, Chris Marshall, who had graduated the year before, and cross-town rival Toms River South was loaded.
Like, ridiculously loaded. They were the area's swimming version of Murderer's Row -- stroke specialists Kevin Ansbro and Keith DeWitt complementing freestyle mavens Terence Donnelly and John Morrison, who less than a month later would bring home swimming gold in the 50-yard freestyle at Princeton University.
During the duel-meet regular season at the Toms River YMCA, South's home pool, South dominated in beating East, 98.5-73.5, so it was a foregone conclusion the Indians were going to claim their first Shore Conference meet title since the very first meet held in 1978. In between, North won the title four straight years from 1979-82 with East winning the next two titles.
The architect of the four North titles as coach was now South's mentor and one of swimming's positive forces, Bill Sorrentino. He knew he had the talent to win it all -- he's the first coach I ever heard in my career tell me, "You're only as good a coach as your talent."
The only way the overwhelming favorite Indians were not going to win it all was an unbelievable team effort by someone else. The only team in the field that could stand up to South was East, which now was guided by the senior leadership of veterans like Rich Siegler and Bill Rickert and with a ton of depth that could claim points here and there in a meet of this magnitude.
As had been proven in December, there was little chance that East could beat South if it was a straight-up dual meet. South's top swimmers were better than East's top swimmers, so Raider coach Mike Conlon's strategy was to get his guys in the right spots and gain points in events that South could not dominate in or better swimmers from other schools could get in and beat South's swimmers, limiting the amount of points the Indians could score.
All the teams of the Shore at the time competing in the meet -- the three Toms River schools, Middletowns North and South, Ocean Township, Shore Regional, Red Bank Regional, Rumson, Neptune and Long Branch -- converged on Ocean County College, the home pool for Toms Rivers East and North and the annual site for the Shore Conference Meet.
Days before the meet, I had done a ton of research on this one meet since this was my first year of covering swimming and gotten a lot of recollections from the coaches who were there watching their kids lead the way to victory -- Sorrentino, Conlon and South's coach in 1978 when the Indians won that title, Vince Heckel, who was now the meet announcer, working with former South girls coach Paul Lenzo, who was the coach of the first girls Shore Conference title team with the Indians in 1978. The affable and knowledgeable Lenzo was now the meet director.
I had an open seat next to Henkel at the table for the meet, thanks to Lenzo, who was bouncing around from place to place on the pool deck trying to make sure there were no hitches during the meet. The best part about having a seat next to Heckel was that I could pick his brain about strategies and what approximate times could win an event. Those three hours next to him were as worthy a three hours I have ever had in my career and I could never thank him enough. It was like getting a free education in the sport.
Meanwhile, East had wiped out the lead South had gained the night before in diving in the opening medley relay. While East's team of Craig Fenwick, Chris Anderson, Doug DeVincens and Scott McShaffery was swimming to a victory in the event, one of South's swimmers had gone into the pool before his teammate had touched the wall. That disqualified South, which finished third in the event and cost them 22 points.
This would be huge at the end of the meet.
Morrison won the 200-yard freestyle, but East's depth was already coming into play. At one point, East held a 31-point lead. When Siegler won the 500, East had a commanding 22-point lead with three events left, which seemed overwhelming for anyone, including South, to overcome.
But South's talent kicked in. The Indian studs weren't going to just roll over and sink in the OCC pool. The beginning of their comeback started with the 100-yard backstroke where Ansbro, a top junior, came from an outside lane to win the event and pick up 16 first-place points, helping cut East's lead to 13 points.
And Morrison still had the 100-yard breaststroke to swim. He swam his way to victory and suddenly, East was up by one single point -- 225-224 -- going into the last relay.
For the second straight year, East was going to have to be at its best in the 400-yard freestyle relay. This time, though, East was going to have to beat South's relay team, unlike the year before when East just needed to finish third to win the meet.
But the South relay team of Eric Grove, DeWitt, Ansbro and Donnelly was about five seconds faster than East's relay team of Joe Aromando, Andy Kraus, Rickert and Siegler during the regular season.
Moments, though, before that last relay, I looked at the corner of East's side of the pool. Conlon was giving a fired-up pep talk. The four swimmers broke the huddle to go to the starting block. And who do I see in the background behind Conlon? None other than Chris Marshall.
Arguably the best swimmer in East history, Marshall had time away from Lehigh University's swim team to make the meet. And with everything that was happening in his almost 19-year-old life at that point, starting with the tragic murder of his mother Maria off a Garden State Parkway rest stop the previous September and the whirlwind coverage of his father being arrested for the planning of her murder in December, the pool was his getaway, where he was still a part of the team even though he was no longer an official member.
Whether it was his inspiration of being there on that OCC deck or not, East had over-achieved a good amount of the night -- and had taken advantage of that DQ in the medley realy -- to hold this one-point lead going to the final event of the night.
South was the top seed of the event, East was No. 3, but both would swim right next to one another, South in lane four, East in lane three, so it was easy to follow both teams in eye level.
As the official announced, "On your marks ... set ... " then hit the buzzer to begin the event, the fans up behind our table were immediately on their feet. They were about to see an end like no other.
It didn't look good for East at the start. Grove and DeWitt had given South a good lead. But into the pool stepped Rickert. He trailed Ansbro, who had just jumped into the pool before him. But Rickert -- East's 6-foot-2 gentle giant -- began to make up the deficit in his 100 yards. By the time he reached the wall, he made the deficit up for Siegler.
Donnelly, a sophomore at the time, jumped in ahead of the East senior. Both 6-foot swimmers were churning through the water at maniacally fast paces. As the two hit the 50-yard mark, they were even. At that point, Lenzo saw my peaked interest in this event and said to me, "You can come to the side of the pool to watch."
It was the only time in my seven years of covering the sport that I ever did so. What I saw in those last 24 seconds, those final 100 yards, will stay with me until the day I no longer exist, the two battling it out stroke for stroke, one next to the other, the crowd literally drowning out the excited teammates cheering on the swimmers going after a Shore Conference title.
With 25 yards left, they were still even. Then something happened. Maybe for years it has been explained that Rich Siegler put it into another gear, just like I reported on the meet. Maybe again, it was Maria Marshall making it a little easier for her son's former teammate to get that little boost of help.
Divine intervention perhaps.
In those last 25 yards, Siegler pulled away. He got to the wall before Donnelly, still on his tail.
The East quartet had swum the 4x100 in a Shore Conference meet record 3:28.21, 10 seconds faster than its best time of the year. South's 3:28.97 would have won every other meet 4x100.
Just not this one.
One year later with Morrison and DeWitt as senior leaders, the Indians would dominate the Shore Conference Meet to win that elusive championship before East would surprise South again in the '87 meet for the first of four straight title, giving the Raiders seven championships in an eight-year period.
And in the end on this February night in 1985, Siegler splashed around furiously in the OCC pool in joy. He had just given East its third straight SC Meet title ... and its most unlikely title. East finished with 257 points to South's 250.
South swimmers and Sorrentino left the OCC pool deck like they were leaving a funeral. Their title had just been snagged away from them by an East team that took advantage of its talents and of the medley relay break it got nearly three hours earlier.
The East swimmers dedicated the victory to the hard work they put in that night. They also dedicated that title to the memory of Maria Marshall, a supportive swimming mom who had an effect on each of the East swimmers on that pool deck that night.
"Tonight we got a special lift from two of the most inspirational people I have known," said Conlon afterward. "We got a special lift in having Chris here with us and another inspirational lift from his mother. Everything she did for the team for four years really paid off tonight. Chris' mom was here helping us along in spirit."
Maria Marshall's spirit was felt that night. Where it was reported that Rich Siegler dug deep to pull away from Terence Donnelly in those last 25 yards to win that last relay for East, maybe he was getting some help.
Divine intervention, perhaps, if you believe.